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Movie Review: The Greatest Showman

For a flash of lush, bright and melodic, poetic pop romanticism, nix the season’s Star Wars mumbo jumbo and opt for entertaining escapism stocked with good-looking idealists singing, dancing and performing in Fox’s gorgeous and spectacular The Greatest Showman. This is the season’s tonic of cheerful optimism to offset the dark, mediocre, macabre movies this fall and winter.

The songs, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen, 2016’s best movie, La La Land), whose songwriting gets better with every project, power and occasionally outshine the story with percussive, propulsive music. Strong melodies, more meaningful and memorable than the songs in Coco and Moana, serve the material, though the smooth staging takes getting used to. So, it’s best to arrive early, sit back and go with it. This is a simple story about a man who wants to put on a show and make audiences happy, so don’t expect religion, ghosts, monsters and hardship, loss and misery lurking beneath the surface.

It’s neither as polished and tight as La La Land nor as brilliant as the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein movie musicals, such as Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, though philosophically The Greatest Showman, written by Bill Condon and Jenny Bicks, is as unabashedly romantic as Oklahoma! This alone makes the movie a remarkable achievement in today’s rotten culture. It’s enough to make you want to forgive the fast-moving film its artificiality, flaws and lack of characterization. Circus performers, animal acts and other plot details get short shrift. Someone in the circus sings a reference to a clown but I didn’t see a single clown in the show.

But what a show. The screen bursts with color, light and striking visual scenes of song, dance and action. This idealized version of P.T. Barnum’s life is a marvelous depiction of early 20th century America and, like a repudiation of The Shape of Water, Americanism. Director Michael Gracey has a grand, lavish and cinematic sensibility. His filming of Michelle Williams as Mrs. Barnum is a wonder from every angle. The same goes for his scenes of Zendaya’s acrobatic tease of love interest Zac Efron (New Year’s EveHigh School Musical, Charlie St. Cloud) in an interracial romantic subplot, which works despite an obvious age gap. Efron’s return to the musical is both a departure from his glut of dumb hunk movie roles and something of a reminder of his natural song and dance talent. His duet with leading man Hugh Jackman (Prisoners) as Barnum, “The Other Side”, is magnificent.

“Comfort is the enemy of progress,” Barnum counters Efron’s wealthy producer character, persuading him to trade as a partner in the burgeoning circus and The Greatest Showman‘s assets include an affirmative pairing of same sex business partners, for a change, leading to one of the film’s most emotional moments. The portrayal of the entrepreneur as an undaunted artist and businessman, i.e., the showman, is a throwback to Hollywood’s classic self-made man and the movie’s shockingly innocent, savvy and realistic in this regard.

For example, Barnum’s collection of circus performers, who invite the audience to get their freak on, climaxing in the Best Song-ready anthem “This Is Me”, rally to remind the audience of the risks of facing the muckraking media and the mob. The terrific ensemble, with its bearded lady, tattooed muscleman, dwarf and other “oddities”, also demonstrates the downsides of Barnum’s publicity campaigns. With this much gritty urban conflict, as New York City’s nasty early 20th century types object to Barnum’s self-proclaimed American museum, a euphemism for the movie’s and Barnum’s assimilationism, The Greatest Showman recalls Rent by Chris Columbus, minus Rent‘s anti-capitalist digs.

Yet this Bohemian-spirited The Greatest Showman is no misanthrope and the movie showcases more, giving the audience romanticized trains, cityscapes, opera houses, ballroom dancing, if not nearly enough tightrope walking, horses, lions and elephants. See Barnum come to visit Queen Victoria. See the young lovers roll in the sawdust. See the wife and kids in soft, subdued pink and blue lament of the circus life. When a play for respectability nearly derails Barnum’s goals, themed to the lovely (if not operatic) “Never Enough”, constant inner conflict becomes universal for anyone who’s never been good enough or who never stops wanting more of the good.

The show must go on, goes the cliche. In this dazzling, fabulous and flawed musical, the show stays centered and shines. I can’t stop humming the songs and seeing this movie makes me want to see The Greatest Showman one more time. That’s, as the saying goes, entertainment. Strictly for the closet romantics who’ve ever dreamed of running away to join the show and master and experience the joy of showmanship.

Best Christmas Gifts 2017

Photo of LA’s The Grove at Christmastime by Scott Holleran

Making the most of Christmas commercialism means to me finding or letting in the joy of this marvelous season. I’ve decided to round up some of my favorite things to give or receive purely for the purpose of spreading the cheerfulness, happiness and goodwill that comes this time of year. I think benevolence is all around if you know why to look — for your sake — and never let life’s turmoil go down deep. Sometimes, things help. They remind you that you matter, that you’re capable of enjoying things. Things can become a person’s project and lead to an enterprise, discovery or way to living a renewed life. I hope these tips help you and those you value have a merry Christmas.


Coffee, Shaving and Elegant Correspondence

Two of the best made products for everyday basics are the Verismo coffee machine and Harry’s razor and blades. Both are simple, efficient and streamlined for functionality. When traveling, I like to use the Photocard application, which easily and masterfully makes and sends picture postcards to send with a note through mail and/or e-mail via my iPad or iPhone.

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Similarly, give boxed notecards as gifts, too, which encourage family and friends to correspond with short, handwritten notes, which may be more personal and meaningful than text or e-mail. I recommend Crane’s stationers and Papyrus for finding the highest quality blank and themed note and greeting cards. For gift cards, I know that getting and giving Amazon, Starbucks and Apple, such as iTunes, cards (and, of course, movie theater gift cards, too) brings happiness. You can also send an individual item, such as a favorite book (Atlas Shrugged), movie (La La Land) or song (“Hello”), in iTunes and other mobile apps.

Money is always welcome, of course, though I think cash or a money card is best presented with a thought expressed in writing or recording if you deliver via modern technology. PayPal, banks’ direct payment tools such as Zelle, ApplePay and others (Square, Western Union, Facebook) offer a range of options for gifting money directly to the individual.


Movies, Movies, Movies

If you want to give a movie, investigate the recipient’s preferred format, i.e., streaming such as Hulu, Apple TV or Netflix, DVD or Blu-Ray. I suggest giving a few films if possible as a batch in a selected variety — musical, comedy, drama, classic, action — centrally based on what you have reason to think the recipient enjoys and perhaps one of your own favorites (of course, with a line about why). If that’s not appropriate or possible, choose one favorite and explain in a blank Christmas card note or gift tag what you want the recipient to gain from watching the movie. Simply writing enjoy works, too.

So does bundling. For instance, if you know a dashing or romantic youngster who appreciates civilized man as a work in progress, consider sharing the charms of Cary Grant by gift wrapping North By Northwest, Gunga Din and Charade. Go for variety in your bundles, but look for common themes in the movies. Include gift receipts in case they already have that movie. Don’t forget other classic movie stars, such as Lizabeth Scott, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. Look on Amazon.com or call used bookstores to find a credible biography or memoir of the movie star to add as a relational stocking stuffer.

Spielberg at his best

If you’re a true classic movie fan, these are some good themed movies for buying and watching together with one you love: naughty, light comedy in romance — So This is Love, Red-Headed Woman, One Hour With You; for epic, raging Westerns — Forty Guns, The Big Country, Stagecoach, Red River, The Virginian; warm, lush adventures from Steven Spielberg — Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Empire of the Sun, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; really glorious, wonderful musicals by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein — The Sound of Music, South Pacific, Oklahoma! or others such as Minnelli and De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York; movies about war — such as American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, 13 Hours; or give some of your favorites among Oscar’s Best Picture winners — Wings, On the Waterfront, Rocky, Schindler’s List, From Here to Eternity, Moonlight, Spotlight, Birdman, 12 Years a Slave, The Hurt Locker, The Artist, The King’s Speech, Chicago, or The English Patient.

Reflections on suppression

Movies perfect for home video gifts include family fare such as Zootopia, A Dog’s Purpose and Hunt for the Wilderpeople, all of which embed benevolent ideals in bright, gorgeously colorful films with bold yet simple strokes and a delightful sense of humor. Other good classic films for general audiences are Ted Melfi‘s Hidden Figures, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Walt Disney’s Bambi, The Jungle Book and Dumbo or his very personal and thoroughly enjoyable So Dear to My Heart, a fabulous movie which depicts the antithesis of today’s cynicism. Other movies which might be welcome to those contemplating and facing serious obstacles include Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim musical which skillfully depicts life’s fairy tale moments with depth and insight; Brokeback Mountain, a beautiful film (2005’s best) about secret, lifelong romantic love; The World According to Garp for its biting wisdom and incisive cultural commentary, which was way ahead of its time; and, for an uplifting and thought-provoking examination of the most radical thinker of our times, buy Michael Paxton’s Ayn Rand: A Sense of Life, now available on a new Blu-Ray edition. Mike Binder‘s Black or White, Jeff Nichols’ Loving and Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are excellent movies about racial integration.

And these slavery-themed films make audiences think twice while moving them to searing emotions — leaving impressions which will last for years and prepare loved ones for forecasting, dodging and transcending what lies ahead: the artistic-themed The Lives of Others, the mythology-themed The Hunger Games, the historical epic 12 Years a Slave and the penetrating romantic tragedy We the Living.


Books

Every movie lover should own a copy of both Leonard Maltin‘s Classic Movie Guide and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which are reliable and outstanding references to have on hand.

Learn from history

For new and recent accounts of why and how people come to believe in evil — and to understand why faith and force are the “destroyers of the modern world” as Ayn Rand wrote — read True Believer: Stalin’s Last American SpyThe Third Reich: The History of Nazi Germany and Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels. To grasp why conservatives advance both destroyers, read the new biography of one of America’s worst presidents, the conservative who made Obama possible, Bush by Jean Edward Smith.

For portraits, memories and stories of man at his better or best, read and/or give The Pit, Harry Reasoner’s Before the Colors Fade and Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty. For the reader who wants to be moved, think, grow, make money and challenge the world, I recommend Ayn Rand’s novels: We the Living, Anthem, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.


Music

Music is so personal that it’s hard to find the right gift. That said, I am fortunate that gifts of certain albums and songs to loved ones who’re facing certain problems add value and yield positive results. Some of my favorite gifts have been albums I never would have discovered on my own, such as favorite albums by Fleetwood Mac, Mark Knopfler and Johnny Cash. Cash’s daughter, Rosanne Cash, made a thoughtful, melodic and terrific road trip album, The River and the Thread, which I saw her perform up the Golden State freeway at the College of the Canyons Performing Arts Center in the Santa Clarita Valley. But, then, I like story-driven songwriters’ music, especially the British songwriters’ invasion.

ONJ and JT at play

To this end, I strongly recommend giving and listening to Divide by Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith’s The Thrill of It All (or Smith’s In the Lonely Hour, for that matter) Adele’s 25 and James Blunt’s Some Kind of Trouble and Moon Landing. Rock-n-roll and other songs by Pat Benatar, Neil Diamond, Melissa Etheridge, Elton John, Stevie Nicks, Alanis, the late Tom Petty and his hero, Elvis, are worth considering, depending on one’s situation, tastes and listening habits. Also, think about giving music by pop female vocalists such as Melissa Manchester, Susan Boyle and Olivia Newton-John.

Olivia’s battle with cancer returned this year, which reminds me that whenever someone I love is diagnosed with any form of cancer, I find value and draw strength from listening to and giving one of her extremely enlightening vocal albums, A Celebration In Song. Olivia’s playful Christmas album with her Grease co-star, John Travolta, This Christmas, is a perfect tonic for the holidays, too. One of my favorite Christmas albums is the one created by pop singer Christopher Cross. It’s really blissful, though it’s hard to find. Other fine musical gifts include vocal and instrumental music by Fred Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald and Stan Getz.


Television

As gifts, TV programming can be extremely life-affirming. For history buffs and non-fiction fans, I recommend The Marva Collins Story starring Morgan Freeman and Cicely Tyson, the fascinating and brilliantly conceived and produced American Ballet Theatre: A History and the eye-opening documentary series by Ken Burns on two of the most damaging figures in American history, The Roosevelts.

HBO’s Path to Paradise dramatizes the first attack on the Twin Towers, which provides a uniquely informative retrospective of pre-9/11 U.S. appeasement and incompetence. History Channel’s Rebuilding the World Trade Center tracks the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attack through an absorbing account of what they call a rebuilding which is, in fact, not what it claims but is nevertheless worth watching. Though it’s a motion picture, not a TV program, if you haven’t seen it, The Walk by Robert Zemeckis is the most exhilarating movie I’ve seen in the theater. It’s an exciting capstone to the existence of the World Trade Center (1973-2001) and a proper remembrance of what were the tallest skyscrapers on earth.

Objective reporting

NBC’s This Is Us is the best new show on TV. CBS’ Escape from Sobibor, dramatizes the only mass concentration camp revolt by Jews against Nazis. Fox’s Glee and Empire and NBC’s Frasier entice and entertain in their premiere seasons if you’ve never watched. For good comedy, Eight is Enough, The Andy Griffith Show, The Carol Burnett Show, I Love Lucy, Hot in Cleveland, and most shows created by Norman Lear afford reality-based laughs that don’t incessantly snicker at values. Cold Blooded, SundanceTV’s amazing documentary miniseries about the Clutter family murders on a farm in Kansas, made infamous and wrongly glorified by Truman Capote in his true crime fictionalization, In Cold Blood, is simply one of the best TV programs I’ve seen in a long time.


Experiences

Though it can be more expensive, giving experiences in advance can be the most joyful and best Christmas gift of all. Whether a handmade certificate for a day at the park or tickets to Disneyland, the opera or a gift card for ArcLight Cinemas, this gift marks a commitment of quality time or a genuinely thoughtful recognition of the recipient’s values. If someone loves gardening, for instance, consider a pass or membership to the botanical gardens. Same goes for other hobbies, interests and favorite sports, such as season or some tickets to the ballpark to see the National League champion Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, or the arena to see the Kings.

Whatever you give or receive, I think the best gift is the one which fits what the person wants. If you think about a favorite or deserving colleague, client, friend, contractor, neighbor or loved one, you probably know, have seen or have some general sense of what lights him up and makes him smile. The best gift could be treating the kids to ice cream, so a Baskin-Robbins gift card might be a good idea. It could be a new tie, scarf, print, beverage or floral bouquet or plant or new album, tool or machine. Consider giving dinner for two at a swanky restaurant to grant someone reprieve. Think in terms of his or her favorite places, wide-eyed tales of want and treasured experiences. Then, go for it.

Have a good time shopping if you can and do and here’s hoping my readers get what they deserve…and wishing you a Merry Christmas and the best of everything in 2018.

Music Review: ‘The Thrill of It All’ by Sam Smith

Sam Smith’s plain, new album is a pop gospel reflection, as soulful as (and more seasoned than) his haunting In the Lonely Hour. “Too Good at Goodbyes” is short and breezy. “Say it First” sets Smith’s gentle, lilting falsetto to the electronic melody and heartbeat rhythm for another good love song. “One Last Song” is an old-fashioned, Motown-style pleaser, “Midnight Train” is searching and “Burning” provides a piano-inflected introspection.

Songs go together in sequence. They draw the listener into The Thrill of It All. Then, comes “HIM”.

This tune is, simply put, a masterpiece, though it might take a few listens to shake off the hype if you’re like I am and need mental clarity to immerse yourself in a song. “HIM”, fittingly in all caps, builds and builds into a chorus as Smith’s vocals dovetail into hand-clapping dare to God. “HIM” ends as a solemn declaration of love as, yes, a hymn. It’s inspired, inspiring music which captures the glory of achieving certainty in rejecting religion.

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“Baby, You Make Me Crazy” is an uptempo toe-tapper and “No Peace” features a recording artist named Yebba on another memorable, piano-looping tune. “Palace” is the type of song you might listen to over and over as you sit by the fire in solitude at Christmastime after everyone’s been cleared out, contemplating promises to yourself for the new year. Lyrics for all these songs, generally at least co-written by Smith, are thoughtful and passionate but also considered and, as before, accessible. The Thrill of It All is in this sense a breakthrough album about the Herculean effort to pull yourself through life’s heartbreak, occasionally with bottles and cigarettes, but foremost with introspection, thought and kindness for one’s honest, gravest mistakes. Sam Smith sings again with sincerity and conviction, this time in reconciliation of whatever debt he might expect himself to pay.

As with the redemptive In the Lonely Hour, the tenth of the ten songs on the regular album, “Pray”, is an affirmation of one who wants to believe in the world.

An additional four songs on the special edition include “Nothing Left for You”, “Scars”, “One Day at a Time” and the album’s title, “The Thrill of It All”. This title track neatly wraps around these 14 songs with a sweeping, which is not to say melodramatic, self-assessment which at once takes stock of life as it is and anticipates working around whatever trouble lies ahead to reach out for the good. For example, “Scars” is a lovely, really touching and soulful tribute to one’s divorced parents. If it is laced with melancholy, and it is (isn’t breaking up?), it is also coated with guitar-laden dreaminess. Words and music suggest an acquired knowledge, confidence and acceptance of the searing pain that comes from the irreconcilability of romantic separation. “One Day at a Time” is an optimistic ode which echoes Smith’s brilliant first album, In the Lonely Hour.

The Thrill of It All is a strong and satiating driving album, especially when you have a reason to believe that what’s around the bend may be bad road conditions…and every reason to believe that, as long as you’re in charge, “it’s never too late” to get past life’s obstacles.

Tom Petty, 1950-2017

With Blondie, David Bowie, the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, the Cars and various other American and British punk and New Wave recording artists, Tom Petty, who died last night in Santa Monica, revived rock and roll in the late 1970s with fresh, original and elementary songwriting and tunes.

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The 66-year-old Southern Californian, who was born and raised in Florida, dropped out of high school and met Elvis Presley on the Ocala, Florida, set of Follow That Dream, which inspired him to pursue a career in music. Petty, who’d been physically abused by his father, later said he’d decided to commit to becoming a rock and roll musician after watching the Beatles perform on live television. The early trajectory goes to why he’s being widely praised and mourned by music fans. I think part of what distinguishes Petty is that his songs and sensibility represent middle class American values. He brought both urgency and simplicity to rock’s essential roots. He did so with distinction.

I discovered Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers with his breakthrough, bestselling 1979 album Damn the Torpedoes (pictured) with its powerful songs bursting with sharp guitar riffs and biting, straightforward lyrics expressed in Petty’s bluesy, emphatic vocals in “Refugee,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Even the Losers”. As the years and decades passed, from his cool, distant “You Got Lucky” and “The Waiting” to “Free Fallin’” and the Dave Stewart-tinged “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” which Petty sings with the deep, slow and dead-on anger of someone who’s seeing things clearly for the first time, arcing up at the end for a fine, guitar-raging finish, and the simple yet insightful song he wrote with Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne, “Learning to Fly”, a Tom Petty single always expressed a mood, sense or thought with melody, structure and clarity. Even his duet with Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks for her bestselling solo album Bella Donna, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” is distinctive in its first few notes. Whether on his own solo album, Wildflowers, or in his brief collaboration with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne in their band the Traveling Wilburys, Tom Petty made his mark.

As far as I know, Petty stayed focused on making music in his own way and he never strayed, holding to the unpretentious, childlike spirit of trading his slingshot for a box of 45s, many of them Elvis Presley songs, when he was a kid. In his recent book Petty: The Biography, Warren Zanes reportedly wrote that “Elvis became a symbol of a place Tom Petty wanted to go. In time, the Beatles would be the map to get there.” Self-made Petty met, performed with and honored some of his own heroes, remaining active, touring and playing music he made, leaving behind a catalog of songs about life. I am one beneficiary of his having gone full speed ahead.

Devoted to Olivia

I was sorry to learn today that Olivia Newton-John is “reluctantly postponing her June U.S. and Canadian concert tour dates”, according to an authorized statement on her behalf, as the back pain the singer initially attributed to her sciatica “has turned out to be breast cancer that has metastasized to the sacrum.” Olivia pledged in the announcement to pursue natural wellness therapies, complete a short course of photon radiation therapy and is “confident she will be back [on tour] later in the year, better than ever…”

I decided on my direction of therapies after consultation with my doctors and natural therapists and the medical team at my Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre in Melbourne, Australia,” says Olivia Newton-John.

I have long admired her work as an actress, songwriter and singer—since the 1970s, when I first heard Olivia’s hit songs on AM radio during family road trips to Wisconsin and soon discovered Olivia’s albums in record stores. I had the pleasure to meet and interview Olivia at her home in Malibu and, years later, backstage at her shows at the Greek and in Las Vegas, where I attended a preview concert which was the basis for her Vegas show’s first review.

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I know firsthand that Olivia, whose 2008 duets album, A Celebration in Song, provides some of the best music for those with cancer, is a thriver, as she once told me. This outstanding artist is a leading champion for finding a cure for cancer and she does so with grit, grace and strength. As I wrote of her collection of inspirational songs on this blog in 2009, Olivia makes music “for anyone battling cancer or any of life’s difficulties.” From the opening anthem, “Right Here with You” to the last track, Belinda Emmett’s (1974-2006) “Beautiful Thing,” it’s one of her best. “Courageous” is the perfect tune for summoning one’s innermost abilities to thrive in life. I’m wishing courageous Olivia a speedy recovery and the best of everything with love.

Rescheduled concert dates will be posted on her official Web site “in the coming weeks”, according to the statement.


Related Links

Official Olivia Newton-John Web site

Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness and Research Centre

Exclusive Concert Review: Olivia Newton-John in Las Vegas

Music Review: ‘Hotel Sessions’ by Olivia Newton-John

Music Review: ‘This Christmas’ by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John

Exclusive Interview: Brett Goldsmith on ‘Hotel Sessions’ by Olivia Newton-John